Pete Townshend on how The Who rewrote the rock rulebook
November 17, 2011 § Leave a comment
The first thing you see on entering Pete Townshend’s studio, which is in a mews house down a pretty side street near Richmond Green, is a shiny Vespa scooter. The second is a print of Peter Blake’s Babe Rainbow. Both are iconic Sixties images. The Who may have long left their past behind, but their ghost still clings to the man who has made talking about his generation, one way or another, his life’s work.
Townshend is in the studio to take a break from writing Who He?, his memoir, 15 years in the making, which was curtailed disastrously in 2003 after his research into child pornography, to understand his own early experience of abuse, led to a police caution and the kind of news story that nobody wants to be associated with. Who He? is due to be published by HarperCollins next year. Has he finished it? “Have I f***. Once you get past 60 and there’s a large family to deal with, it becomes difficult to write without distraction.” I tell him that, after past conversations about the possibility of his working with a co-writer, this seems like a book he had to write on his own. “Yes. But the problem with that is: I have to write the f***ing thing.”
Diversions do come along every now and then, and Townshend has taken up two significant ones this year to find temporary respite from the terror of the blank page. The first is the inaugural John Peel lecture that he gave in Salford last month, which eulogised the late BBC DJ as an enthusiast without agenda and criticised Apple for bleeding musicians dry. Town-shend argued that iTunes, which accounts for more than 75 per cent of legal downloads, had the financial power to nurture and develop artists; instead it bleeds artists like “a digital vampire”. Apple has made no comment, but — variously praised for standing up for musicians and criticised for clinging on to an old music industry model — Townshend’s lecture hit a nerve.
The second — far more time-consuming — diversion is putting together the boxed set of Quadrophenia, the album that Townshend accepts is the best piece of work he has done — and will ever do.
Released in 1973, Quadrophenia is both an ambitious rock opera from a band at the height of its powers and an emotional reminiscence on the scene that band emerged from. Telling the story of Jimmy, a young mod who dissolves into psychosis, it explores alienation, belonging, spiritual salvation and nostalgia. It was intended to reflect the four wildly different individuals in The Who, tie up with the invention of quadraphonic sound, and save the band during a period of crisis. All of this proved quite a lot for the three other members of The Who to take in: the final day’s work on the album ended with Roger Daltrey punching Townshend so hard that he was out cold for an hour, of which more later.
The album had its earliest roots in an abandoned script about The Who by Nik Cohn called Rock is Dead, Long Live Rock. “At the time,” says Townshend, “we were on the verge of breaking up. And the interesting thing is: I didn’t give a f***. I didn’t like being in the band. I wasn’t happy. I liked being a songwriter, locked away in a recording studio, and my family were certainly happier having me at home than off with Keith Moon on the road.”
Townshend’s problem was with The Who’s transformation into a stadium band. “There was a period in the late Sixties when people would come to our gigs, sit down, smoke a joint and go, ‘Cool man, cool’. But by the Seventies we were in football fields full of people saying, ‘I went to the toilet, what did I miss?’ ‘Oh, Keith Moon cut off his head with a chainsaw. Never mind, he’ll do it again.’ The intimacy had gone and we were bored shitless.”
From early days of playing to a hundred mods in the Goldhawk Club in Shepherds Bush, the band had a rapid trajectory that reached a climax at their legendary set at Woodstock, in August 1969. “We were energised by doing this free-form set that spawned bands like Led Zeppelin and God knows who else. Roger became a sex god and the quality of the groupies went up dramatically, but it was difficult to maintain the creativity. They say you have to write every day to keep the thread, but being on the road, man . . . after Woodstock you would see me getting down on my hands and knees on stage and doing a little fiddly bit. That’s because the only place I had any f***ing peace and quiet was in the middle of a Who gig!”
Quadrophenia was a way of returning to the time when being in The Who did make Townshend happy. He sparked the story with memories of sleeping under Brighton Pier after a gig at The Aquarium, in March 1964. “That was the night [art school girlfriend] Liz Frazer and I missed the train back to London,” he recalls. “It started to drizzle so we went under the pier, and there were all these little mod boys off their heads on a mix of amphetamines, tranquillisers and cider. They were in their parkas, shivering, and it was like a mini-Woodstock. You know, ‘We’ve changed the world, man!’ Everything was just right. The band understood that aspect of the story because we had all been there. Roger’s elder sister was the first mod I ever met.”
What his bandmates didn’t understand was the mass of ideas that Townshend was attempting to jam into Quadrophenia. After the success of the Tommy album in 1969, Townshend had attempted to write a science-fiction rock opera called Lifehouse. It fell apart, aspects of it fed into the 1971 album Who’s Next, and you get the sense that Daltrey, Moon and John Entwistle would have quite liked trying their hand at being a normal rock band for a while. “They didn’t get it,” he says of Quadrophenia. “They would say to me: are we Jimmy? Is he schizophrenic? Is Jimmy us? What happens at the end? Does he die? Does he not die? But still, they trusted me.”
Inspired by Sonic Seasonings by Wendy (formerly Walter) Carlos, a piece of electronic mood music recorded as the world’s first “quadraphonic” album, Townshend set up a four-speaker studio in Battersea and got to work. The band may have been in trouble, with Moon’s profligate spending threatening to throw the whole operation into bankruptcy and Townshend’s increasingly complex ideas inciting rebellion, but after years of touring they were at the top of their game. “I would drink a pint of brandy and nail my guitar parts,” he says. “Roger was very present in the studio — it was the last album he put the hours in for — and he was doing unbelievably lovely vocals on tracks like Love Reign O’er Me. The drumming is fantastic. A month later Keith Moon is taking elephant tranquillisers at a gig in San Francisco and he’s at the end of his career.”
Then came Daltrey’s killer right hook. “I walked into the studio, having not slept for two days after doing the final mixes,” Townshend says. John [Woolf, The Who’s production manager] and I had been in my big Mercedes limousine drinking brandy. Roger was in the studio, having waited for us for the last five hours. ‘We’ve done it!’ I shouted at him. ‘Yeah? Well I’ve been here since one o’clock and I’m going.’ ‘You can’t f***ing go!’ He pushed me out of the way, I spat at him, and I got knocked out. When I came round an hour later my memory was gone for two days. He’s a one-punch man, Roger. The next day we went up north and did a gig; it went so badly that I knocked the mixing desk over. They made me go on Tyne Tees Television and apologise.”
In spite of it all, Quadrophenia was a success. The story of Jimmy the mod has endured, not least because of Franc Roddam’s 1979 movie, which was funded by the success of Ken Russell’s 1973 film version of Tommy. “Despite everyone describing Tommy as a piece of shit, we got rich from it,” Townshend says. “So we invested in Shepperton Studios and became film-makers.”
Townshend’s first choice for the role of Jimmy was John Lydon, fresh from making bands such as The Who feel very old indeed with the Sex Pistols. “We were in the middle of recording Who Are You when punk happened,” he says. “Keith Moon, who by then had to be propped up with a broomstick to play drums, was turning up at punk gigs in his pink limousine. I always liked Lydon because he’s very funny, very cynical and very difficult to pin down, so we asked him to play Jimmy at The Music Machine in Camden Town one night. Halfway through the evening he turns round and says: ‘It’s nice to be asked … but I’m not really right for it, am I?’ It certainly would have been a very different film with him in it.”
Quadrophenia became such a cult hit that it spawned a mod revival all of its own. Phil Daniels’ Jimmy was a new kind of folk hero: a confused young man who discovers that you can’t hold on to a youth culture to answer life’s problems. “It was about the day in the life of a young mod,” says Townshend, sounding as if he has been struggling to précis the plot line for the best part of four decades. “And when that collapses it’s about what there is left to do but start a new life, pray, embrace inner peace and so on. Even in 1973 that was the underlying mechanism to what we were doing: serving an audience as they grew up.”
Townshend adds that Quadrophenia is also about humanity’s need to feel a part of a gang. “I’ve been contemplating this recently,” he says. “Why is the gang so important? It’s there in the Beatles, the Stones, in the formation of The Who. It’s there in the Tory party, the Socialist movement. It’s even there in rehab. What the gang allows to be subsumed means that what cannot be subsumed sticks out like a sore thumb. That’s what’s going on for Jimmy. He’s joined this gang, but everywhere he goes he’s made aware that something about him doesn’t fit. Maybe we all feel like that.”
Over an afternoon’s grappling with the values of what The Who achieved, what their purpose has been, and what they lost by becoming rich and famous, one thing becomes clear: Townshend isn’t a man to take things lightly. He talks about his disappointment that Roger Daltrey could put so much passion and feeling into his vocals for Love Reign O’er Me and then fret about not having his photograph on the cover of the album. He admits that the one rock star he truly identifies with is Gary Bloke from Private Eye’s Celeb. He wonders if The Who can continue now that Daltrey seems happier with his own band, performing Tommy to audiences in America. And he concludes that the hopes of his generation to change the world with rock’n’roll came, ultimately, to nothing.
“We had such high hopes,” he says, with an air of resignation. “Quadrophenia attempted to show that we all thought the system would change, and all we did in the end was provide another shade to growing up. The self-importance of people like Bono, who can stand in front of massive audiences and command them, becomes offensive because you think: what does it mean? Who does it help? Ultimately, rock music is an attempt to feel a part of something. We can fit in to an extent, but there’s always a bit of us that sticks out. That might be the human condition. That might be what makes us individuals.”
Given these myriad complex ideas, and the fact that Townshend has spent the past few months escaping from his memoirs to work on four CDs, a DVD and a 100-page book that comprises the Quadrophenia boxed set, what is it actually, ultimately, about?
“It’s one long whinge,” he replies. “But it’s a whinge fuelled by the most unbelievable drug-fuelled grandiosity.”
Quadrophenia: The Director’s Cut (Universal) is out on Monday